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Why a Daytona 500 breakthrough has eluded Brad Keselowski

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Like so many sublimely talented restrictor-plate drivers before him, Brad Keselowski somehow still lacks a Daytona 500 victory.

But the Team Penske driver doesn’t lack for awareness and knowledge of what it will take for a long-awaited breakthrough in the signature race, and he was reminded of the winning key while recently browsing a military handbook.

“(It was) on how to handle different things, all kinds of different game plans, strategies for attacks,” Keselowski told reporters on a national media call last week. “One of the things in the back of the book is, ‘Remember, everything here is for normally trained soldiers going up against another normally trained soldier.’ There’s no way to prepare for a kamikaze, no way to train for somebody that does crazy shit.

“I read that book and I laughed because that’s a lot how the 500 is.  Moves that should work don’t work because for whatever reason that race gets people amped up, crazy, and they do weird things. And so your normal playbook, a lot of times it doesn’t work for the 500. It’s part of the randomness of the race.”

With a series-best six wins at Daytona and Talladega, best on plate tracks among active drivers, Keselowski will enter Sunday’s Daytona 500 trying to snap a 0 for 9 record in the Great American Race – but he takes some solace in the company he keeps.

It took Dale Earnhardt, the winningest driver in Daytona history, 20 tries to win the season opener. Darrell Waltrip won in his 17th attempt. In 17 tries, Tony Stewart never won it despite four victories in the July race.

Besides Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. (0 for 14), Kyle Busch (0 for 13) and Clint Bowyer (0 for 13) are among the active notables still winless in the Daytona 500.

“I think it’s an astute observation, one that’s not lost on me,” Keselowski said of the long waits for several big names such as himself. “I think the moves that should work and normally would work on plate tracks don’t work on the 500 because of kind of the chaos of that race. It’s almost like you need a different playbook for the 500 than you do a normal plate race. I know that’s kind of hard to explain.

“A lot of your success is dictated by others specific to getting crashed out. It makes it very difficult, especially for me and probably drivers like Kyle would probably say the same thing. It makes it very difficult for us because we’ve built a playbook of things we feel good about and we know are the right moves. They’ve worked for us on the other plate tracks, and they don’t work at the 500 because of the randomness of that race. It’s frustrating.”

The 2018 season renewed the urgency of ending that frustration.

With victories at the Brickyard 400 (the first for team owner Roger Penske) and the Southern 500, Keselowski added two “major” wins to his resume, which leaves the Daytona 500 as the glaring omission.

“Last year after winning Darlington and Indianapolis, gosh, the thrill from that, I’m still kind of on a high from that,” he said. “That was almost six months ago.

“But Daytona is, of course, the 500, one major I don’t have. I feel like it’s a race we’ve been competitive at.  We had opportunities to win it.  For a number of reasons, it hasn’t come together, which is sometimes unsettling.  People ask me all the time, ‘What race is the one that got away?’  It’s the 500, has been so far. I want to change that.”

He has been close to winning several times.

In 2014, he finished third after being outdueled by Dale Earnhardt Jr on the last restart. In 2015, a blown engine eliminated his No. 2 Ford from contention with 40 laps remaining (in a race won by his teammate, Joey Logano). Crashes have knocked him out of the past two 500s with strong cars.

“(Survival) has been the hardest part for me,” Keselowski said. “I feel we’ve been good enough to win it multiple times.  We get caught up in somebody else’s wreck or problem. I think you see that a lot.

Besides the luck factor, first things first, you got to be running at the end of that race.  For whatever reason, I think maybe because it’s the first race of the year, maybe because it’s one of the biggest races of the year, I’m not entirely sure, but the Daytona 500 has traditionally been a race of very high attrition. Getting to the end has been very difficult for us.”

NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte, who was Earnhardt’s crew chief for the ’14 win and two prior runner-up finishes, said the pressure compounds the difficulty level for even the best drivers.

“The guy that wins the Daytona 500 is the one that was fortunate enough to make zero mistakes in the last 20 laps,” Letarte said. “Because it builds to a crescendo like no other race in the world. It just builds and builds and builds over three hours. And you know when you leave pit road for the last time, and you can see the energy, all the drivers know it.

“They make very few moves until they’re very calculated. In most races, you can make mistakes in the last few laps of a race and still have a chance to win it. In the Daytona 500, you just can’t.”

And it might actually be tougher for drafting aces such as Keselowski

“I think a lot of people see them as the most threat, so I think they get the least amount of help,” Letarte said. “While you would think they would get the most, I think if you have a chance to hang out any of those big names, that’s who you hang out. Because not all mistakes are a mistake, sometimes you zig, and you just know the guy behind you is going to zig, and he zags. And you’re done.”

“It’s a chess match. It’s months and months and months for one 2.5-mile lap. There is no guarantee you’re ever going to win this race. All you really do is try to be one of the players with 5 miles to go. That race builds like no other. You can just feel it every lap.”

That makes preparing for the race tricky for Keselowski, whose study of military tactics speaks to his meticulously analytical style. While the research can help in some Daytona 500s that unfold as strategical masterpieces, it’s much less effective when the races become crashfests that eliminated many contenders (which was true the past two years).

“Probably the worst thing you can do is be prepared for it because then you have preconceptions of moves that should work, and they don’t because the race is so random,” Keselowski said. “It actually gets you in more trouble. It’s a very, very difficult race to prepare for.”

But he will do so nonetheless, hoping that he can erase the agony of having the current “best plate driver without a Daytona 500” label.

“I’m definitely very frustrated,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.  But on the other side, I’m confident if we keep doing the right things, not to sound too cliché, but trust the process, it will come together.  That means you put the work in, you follow the playbook the best you know how, that we developed, try to make it count.

“I feel like the car is there, the team is there, I’m there.  We’re all ready to win this race.  Hopefully the time is now this year in 2019.”

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

NTSB
Photo: Dustin Long
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Pilot error played a key role in the August 2019 crash of a plane carrying Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his family, a final report by the National Transportation Safety Board stated Wednesday.

Earnhardt, wife Amy and daughter Isla were on board the plane, which crashed after a hard landing at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Municipal Airport on Aug. 15, 2019. The report stated all three suffered minor injuries. 

The NTSB listed the probable causes of the accident as: “The pilot’s continuation of an unstabilized approach despite recognizing associated cues and the flight crew’s decision not to initiate a go-around before touchdown, which resulted in a bounced landing, a loss of airplane control, a landing gear collapse, and a runway excursion. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s failure to deploy the speedbrakes during the initial touchdown, which may have prevented the runway excursion, and the pilot’s attempt to go around after deployment of the thrust reversers.”

A “go-around” occurs when a pilot pulls out of a landing and gains altitude to make another landing attempt.

The report stated that “the flight crew made several comments about the airplane flying too fast and allowed the airspeed to increase well above the reference speed for the approach.”

The report stated that “the pilot did not extend the speedbrakes upon touchdown, which landing checklist required, but instead attempted to deploy the thrust reversers immediately after touchdown, which was a later item on the landing checklist.”

Earnhardt’s Cessna 680A Citation Latitude bounced twice upon landing as it traversed the 5,001-foot runaway.

After the fourth touchdown, the right main landing gear collapsed. The plane went off the road and through a 400-foot long area of grass. It went down an embankment, through a creek and a chain-link fence. It continued up an embankment. The plane came to rest about 600 feet beyond the runway at the edge of a four-lane highway.

The passengers and two pilots escaped as the plane burned.

The full report can be read here.

Champion or not, Chase Briscoe won’t let Xfinity title define season

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Like the 11 drivers he’ll compete against in the Xfinity Series playoffs, a championship is the endgame for Chase Briscoe.

However, with the Stewart-Haas Racing driver one win from matching his preseason goal of at least eight victories, Briscoe wouldn’t be too disappointed if he failed to claim the title at the end of the seven-race playoff.

“I feel like to this point if we don’t get to eight (wins) … I feel like I accomplished or proved what I was trying to say at the beginning of the year,” Briscoe told NBC Sports on Tuesday. “There’s still no reason why we can’t get to 10 wins. I feel 100% confident in my team that we’re going to have the cars capable of doing it, I just need to do my job. If we do that, hopefully we can get to Phoenix and then (whoever’s) the best team once we get there wins.”

As he prepares to open the playoffs Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Briscoe is wary of not letting “the championship define you and define your season. … Winning races is a big deal. That’s what you get paid to do is go win races and obviously win championships as well, but today’s format anything can happen in that final race.”

Briscoe can attest to importance of winning races. He enters the playoff with a series-leading seven wins, which has helped him start the postseason with 2,050 points and ties him with Austin Cindric.

Briscoe’s impressive numbers come a year after he had just one win in a season where Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer combined to win 21 of 33 races.

Briscoe believes the perception of his abilities as a driver are “way different” from last year as he struggled to chase those three drivers now competing in Cup.

“Personally, I felt like I could win races, and I think a lot of it was learning,” Briscoe said. “Last year, there were still a lot of tracks I had never been to before and didn’t even have 100 pavement starts in my entire career, and now I have that experience. I have the confidence to go with it and all of those things are totally different, and when I said what I said at the beginning of the year (about winning eight races) I felt like I was capable of doing that.

“If I could back it up, it would look even better. … I think I’ve proven my worth in this sport. I feel like if I do get the opportunity to move up, I feel like I’m ready, but I also feel like I could get a lot of benefit out of coming back to the Xfinity Series and running again.”

Briscoe, a Ford development driver, says he still doesn’t know what’s in store for him in 2021.

He said the uncertainty of his future is a “little bit easier” to handle compared to last year because of the wins he’s racked up.

Regardless of not knowing his NASCAR fate, if Briscoe can “somehow get to 10 wins this year and win the championship, then that would just make it, I feel like, a lot easier for the decision-makers.”

Mike Wallace’s appeal of indefinite suspension denied

NASCAR suspends Mike Wallace
Mike Wallace
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Mike Wallace‘s indefinite suspension by NASCAR was upheld by the National Motorsports Appeals Panel on Wednesday.

Wallace, who has made three Xfinity Series starts this season, was suspended Sept. 10 for violating Sections 12.1; 12.8; 12.8.1.e of the rule book.

According to the rulebook, a violation of section 12.8.1.e is any “Public statement and/or communication that criticizes, ridicules, or otherwise disparages another person based upon that person’s race, color, creed, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, religion, age, or handicapping condition.”

As part of the suspension, Wallace is required by NASCAR to attend sensitivity training.

The three-member appeals panel was made up of Dixon Johnston, Bill Lester and Kevin Whitaker.

Wallace has the right to appeal the decision to the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer.

Wallace wrote the following on Facebook shortly after his suspension was originally announced:

“You know as I fly across the United States today I’m ready various people’s political views and I have to say a famous four star Military General that I spent time with in the MidEast told me Mike let me give you some advice don’t ever get in a conversation about politics or religion unless you are really smart. I said why do you say that comment His response it’s like being balanced on a single edge razor blade if you slip you will get cut!

Think about that before we all make foolish uneducated post! Moral of this story is most of use just repeat what we have heard we really don’t know.
Have a great positive day!”

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

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Following months of speaking out in support of racial justice and inclusion in NASCAR, Bubba Wallace‘s work has been recognized by The Musial Awards.

The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has been selected as the recipient of its Award for Extraordinary Character.

The award honors “an individual who demonstrates remarkable poise, perseverance and overall sportsmanship.”

The Musial Awards – presented by Maryville University in St. Louis – is named after Stan Musial, a former St. Louis Cardinal baseball player. St. Louis is also the home to one of Wallace’s sponsors, World Wide Technology.

More: Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in May, the 26-year-old Wallace has been active in helping lead NASCAR through social changes, including the banning of the Confederate flag at series events and tracks.

He also drove a Black Lives Matter car at Martinsville Speedway in June.

“Bubba Wallace exemplifies what the Stan Musial Award for Extraordinary Character is all about,” Frank Viverito, president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, which produces the Musial Awards, said in a press release. “He has overcome much to be where he is, and he has courageously stepped forward to take an important stand for change. He is most deserving of an award that stands for sportsmanship and character, and is named for Stan Musial, whose own actions promoted racial acceptance and unity.”

Wallace joins baseball legend Hank Aaron as a 2020 Musial Awards honoree. Aaron is receiving the Stan Musial Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportsmanship.

The Musial Awards will air nationally on CBS on Saturday, Dec. 26.

After three full-time seasons in Cup racing for RPM, it was announced earlier this week that Wallace would compete in 2021 for a Cup team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and basketball legend Michael Jordan.